Diversity enriches middle school Linux user group

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Penguins gathered together in the Artic


This article is co-authored by Mara Chai

The Community School of Excellence (CSE) in Saint Paul, Minnesota, provides something unique to the open source world: a Linux club based in a Hmong charter school. One could say that our club, the CSE Asian Penguins, provides a dose of diversity to the Linux community, which does not have many Hmong participants (although we keep looking for them!).

I am a teacher at this school, so it could be argued that my being there as a white man provides diversity for the school's students. But this story has another—more compelling—side.

The year was 2013, and the Asian Penguins had a problem. One that I, a faculty adviser for the club, didn’t even notice. Two boys, however, did notice. One day, both students came to me and said, "Mr. Keroff, we have a problem. We don’t have any Karenni kids in our club."

Those children were right. Back then, the Asian Penguins were growing, members were getting their friends to join, and more students were using Linux. But all the kids had one thing in common: they were all Hmong. Every single one of them. This was in spite of the fact that more than 8% of the student population was Karenni. I agreed with those students: We had a problem.

How did this happen? It happened because nobody was paying attention. At our school, Hmong kids hang out with Hmong kids and Karenni kids hang out with Karenni kids. So, if Hmong kids were inviting their friends to the club, they were inviting more Hmong kids. It just happened that way.

So I, along with our school's Karenni community liaison Shaw Reh, went to talk to all of the Karenni middle school students to invite them to the Asian Penguins. Some of them decided to join, and they made a difference in the club right away.

When the Asian Penguins started giving away computers, they did so in order to help poor families—many of whom were Karenni. For the Penguins to bring a computer to a Karenni family who didn’t speak English, they needed a Karenni interpreter. The point of the Asian Penguins was for the kids to do the work, not the adults. The Karenni members of the Asian Penguins were needed and welcomed.

Since then, the Asian Penguins have looked like the school: some of the Penguins are Hmong, some of them are Karenni, and some of them defy rigid categories. The Asian Penguins welcome girls to be Penguins, too. Since the club’s second year, the members have been about 50% female, and girls have led missions and served as elected officers.

Diversity can be difficult to achieve, but it’s something worth striving for, and the results speak for themselves. The club and the school are richer for it.

Read more about the Asian Penguins and their work inspiration for the community.

in Open Source

This article is part of the Diversity in Open Source series to help foster an inclusive and welcoming environment by publishing a diverse range of voices on a variety of international open source topics.

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I am a social studies and technology teacher at Aspen Academy in Savage, MN. Our school uses Linux and open source software in several of our classrooms. These computers were provided to the classes by the Penguin Corps, our school's Linux club. The Penguin Corps is a diverse group of boys and girls who have fun after school learning how to become technology leaders.


Your article reminds me of "and a little child will lead them." This is a heartwarming story of children who really understand. You must be an outstanding teacher that they would feel comfortable coming to you with such a request. Once again you and your students are models for the rest of us.

Thank you, Don. I am very proud of those two boys (who are now both in high school). First off, they saw the situation as a problem, not just "the way things are". Second, they wanted to help solve the problem. I am also very proud of those Karenni students who became risk takers and were the first ones to join the club.

Lovely story. Great to hear students making a society like this, I think it teaches a lot of skills which you don't get from the classroom.

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